The duo behind Estelle (1806 St. Clair Av., St. Paul) is branching out, although the distance isn't far — only about 16 blocks.
Jason Hansen and Peter Sebastian are converting the former Tillie's Farmhouse (232 Cleveland Av. N.) into a pizza-and-sandwich shop that they're calling Mario's. The plan is to serve trendy Detroit-style pizza, which follows a pan-style, thick-crust, cheese-heavy format.
"Yes, we've heard of Wrecktangle and we think ours will be different," they said in a statement, a reference to the Minneapolis pizzeria that popularized Detroit-style pizza in the Twin Cities.
"Different" means that Hansen is taking cues beyond Motown. Specifically, he's looking to New York City's fabled Di Fara.
"It's my favorite pizza in the world," he said. "They keep it really simple and use really good ingredients. I was just blown away by it. I know, it's just pizza, but it's crazy how little things can do that."
For the pizza at Mario's, the word hybrid will apply.
"I like the style of Detroit-style pizzas, and there's a market for them in St. Paul," Hansen said. "But instead of the usual brick cheese and low-moisture mozzarella that they use in Detroit, we'll use brick with a fresh mozzarella and grated Pecorino, and we'll finish it with a nice olive oil, and good tomatoes, and fresh basil. We're not going to do the pizzas with all the crazy toppings, we're going to keep it simple and use really good ingredients."
Hansen is also looking at a by-the-slice option.
"With all the college kids in the area, we'd love to do by-the-slice for lunch," he said. "Everybody walking by asks us about it. There's a strong possibility, but we don't want to make any false promises."
Another major menu item will be sandwiches.
"There will be American- and Italian-style cold cuts, with different condiments, on fresh-baked hoagie rolls," said Hansen. "We're keeping the overhead low by serving hot pizza and cold sandwiches."
Hansen and Sebastian have recruited Evan Vranian to run the kitchen. Vranian has a strong culinary lineage. His father is Steve Vranian, the longtime executive chef at Gianni's in Wayzata, and his mother Jule Vranian — and aunt Hope Klocker — are the forces behind Sweet Jules Gifts, the extraordinary source for all things caramel. Hansen and Evan Vranian, who was most recently cooking at Sooki & Mimi, became friends when they were both working in the kitchen at Tilia.
Mario's 50-seat dining room will have a counter-service setup. The bar will feature beer, wine, kombucha and coffee, and the plan is to also incorporate takeout and delivery. Dessert will be zeppole doughnuts.
The restaurant's name is a nod to Hansen's pal Mario Munoz, a relationship that reaches back to when they were hockey-playing — and pizza-eating — teenagers in Eagan.
"He's an investor in an emotional friendship way, not in a financial way," said Hansen.
Estelle and Mario's share the same landlord. One of the draws to Mario's Cleveland-and-Marshall storefront (before Tillie's, it was the longtime home of Trotter's Cafe) is a 20-stall parking lot, located behind the building. Another is proximity to the University of St. Thomas campus, and its legions of pizza- and sandwich-craving students.
Construction — which Hansen and Sebastian are managing, do-it-yourself-style — is underway.
"We don't have a $2 million budget, so we're the demolition crew, the interior designers, everything," said Hansen. "We have our hands full, but it's fun. That's what we do, we flip restaurants."
The debut date isn't set in stone.
"We'd love to be open before Christmas, and if a couple of miracles happen, it could be December," said Hansen. "But what I'm thinking — and kind of saying — is that it's going to be around the beginning of the new year."